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Expert's Angle: Insider's Guide to Leading Multi-Generational Teams

With older generations working longer and new generations coming into the workforce, the modern contact center is increasingly comprised of multiple generations of employees. For the first time in modern history, four generations are employed in the workplace simultaneously. Each generation has its own perspective on business issues related to leadership, communication, problem solving and their role in the organization. So how does a manager flex coaching style to address intergenerational dynamics and attain the very best from representatives of each generation? Don’t wing it. Honing your communication techniques is critical for connecting with your diverse team.

To begin, we need to define each generation. In the process, we will explore the myths and validate the facts ascribed to each group. As a result, we will be able to use gen-blending to redefine successful coaching.

A generation is a group of people who are programmed at the same time in history. They are coded with data about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, and how they relate to others. They share a common history regarding music, social and political events, the economy, education, and even parenting style. While behaviors and skills are adjusted as they learn and grow, they do not often change the way they view the world. Now, ascribing universal attributes to a broad generation is difficult, but broad cultural similarities do exist. Historical, social, media and economic influences do impact cultures. So a word of warning in advance: be careful when applying these generalities to individuals.

Defining the Generations

The names and birth years for the four generations may vary from model to model, but for our purposes we define the Traditionalist as people born between 1925 and 1945. Those born between 1946 and 1964 comprise the Boomers generation. People born between 1965 and 1982 are referred to as Gen X, and those born between 1982 and 2001 are called Gen Y.

The Traditionalists are sometimes referred to as “the greatest generation” because they grew up in the wake of the great depression, fought in and were influenced by World War II and built the infrastructure for American commerce. The popular medium that shaped them was the radio. Because members of this generation tend to be conservative in dress and language, they are sometimes referred to as the "silent generation." They still represent nearly 13 million people or about 8 percent of the U.S. workforce.

There are both positive and negative perceptions of Traditionalists in the workforce according to Sirota’s Employee Attitude survey of 300,000 workers in 50 organizations. The negative perceptions are that Traditionalists have low assertiveness and "can’t say no" to a request. On the positive side, they have great pride in their work, are willing to go the "extra mile," put duty before self, and have a high level of job satisfaction. Among all the employees surveyed, the Traditionalists feel that their skills are best utilized, understand how their jobs connect to overall company goals more than others, are most satisfied in their jobs, and are most likely to be the company advocate.

Boomers have been more engaged in social issues than many generations before them as a result of growing up in the 1960s. Their mothers and fathers exercised a more flexible discipline parenting style, which fostered optimism, self-worth and sharing. They were heavily influenced by television during their formative years. When this group hit the workforce, they wanted to have a “seat at the table” and voice in the direction of the companies they worked for. Today they represent 44% of the U.S. workforce with 66 million workers.

What are the Boomers’ trends and traits? The negative perceptions are that this group is greedy and resource consuming, married to job and not family, affluent but poor; they avoid long-term planning and were all about “drugs, sex and rock and roll” growing up. The positive perceptions: they believed that they were a special generation and that the world would improve with time; they believe that they can change the world and are incredibly hard workers. As a result, they are willing to "go the extra mile" for their employer, often working evenings and weekends to make a difference.

Among all employees surveyed, the Boomers feel that they are not paid enough (for their lifestyle), work hard and think that should pay off; they are often disillusioned when not rewarded, and believe that other generations should “pay their dues” before their opinion is valued.

Gen Xers grew up in conflicting times. Trust in institutions and leaders in business, government and religion were on the decline. More women entered the workforce. Almost all Gen Xers were affected by either the divorce of their parents or that of a friend or relative. As a result, they became “street smart” and self-reliant. They learned how to cope and even thrive on change. The technology that shaped their lives was the personal computer. Today they represent more than 33 percent of the U.S. labor force with 50 million employees. They like to work with entrepreneurial companies where they can achieve measureable results.

How are Gen Xers perceived? On the negative side, they are viewed as mistrusting of institutions, reject rules, and are friend but not family oriented. On the positive side of the ledger, they accept diversity, are self-reliant and individualistic, technology oriented, practical and pragmatic, and can adapt to flexible schedules.

Gen Y grew up with technology. Their parents made them the busiest generation of children ever. They view the world as interconnected and 24/7. They arrive on the job with expectations beyond any previous generation and have high levels of social concern and responsibility.

How are they viewed? Too often they are viewed as entitled and disrespectful, too inquisitive, blunt, not willing to "put in the time," lazy and self centered. Positive perceptions include: results oriented, technology savvy, socially conscious, entrepreneurial and best suited for pay for performance.

What they really seek is meaning and purpose in their jobs. They have high integrity and the ability to collaborate. They have other life pursuits besides their jobs and want flexible work schedules. They don’t want to be judged on experience, but on performance. They can’t tolerate micro-management.

At NOVO 1, we employ customer service advisors aged 18 – 92. What are the benefits of such a broad spectrum of employees and how do we speak and coach so that they will listen and maximize performance?

Multigenerational Workforce Benefits

Many benefits are to be gained when a multigenerational team works together in a call center. The diversity reduces stress and calms down the center. The center is viewed as family and creates a cohesive unit. The team becomes more flexible and can meet the needs of a diverse public by relating to customers more effectively.

Each generation brings its own positive attributes and coaches have to learn how to get the most out of them. Too often when we focus on the differences, we focus on the negatives. The challenge is to leverage the positives of each generation.

If the top Gen X and Gen Y values are results, people, individualism and theoretical knowledge, then we can build on those positive traits with these coaching tips:

  • Understand what motivates them
  • Connect the dots between the individual’s and company’s success
  • More, not less face-time
  • Tell them how they matter and show them how they make a difference
  • Ask thoughtful questions
  • Value innovation and news ways to accomplish a task
  • Focus on results and not process goals

    Management Style Preference

    The following summary of management preferences was adapted from AARP and is shared to guide coaches and warn of the management styles that are least effective with each generation.

    Traditionalists (age 64 and over) prefer clear direction, a logical approach to business, fair and consistent treatment, specific job expectations spelled out, and respect with all communications. What drives them crazy? Managers who are indecisive, disorganized, too touchy-feely, use profanity, and worry about unpopular decisions.

    Boomers (age 44-63) want to be treated as equals, gain assurance that they are making a difference, engage in a democratic approach to assignments and work with a group to define team goals. They have issues with managers who are: bureaucratic, aren’t open to input, don’t show interest in their work, are brusque and send "my way of the highway" messages.

    Gen X (age 29-43) perform best when given deadlines and turned loose to execute the task, receive support training and growth opportunities, and are communicated with in an informal and genuine manner from a competent leader.

    Gen Y (less than 28 years of age) prefers managers who are positive, know their personal goals, can coach and support, are organized, and achievement oriented. They will have serious issues with managers who are cynical and sarcastic, treat them as too young to be valued, are threatened by tech savvy employees, are inconsistent with treatment and disorganized, or talk down to employees.

    GenBlend Coaching

    GenBlending is a term coined by Bette Price, author and founder of The Price Group. It describes a coaching methodology that blends generational knowledge and talents, for which there must be mutual trust and respect. Astute leaders and coaches recognize that the preferred communication styles of each generation focus on the things that are common to all generations: listen, be respectful, and be present in the moment.

    Join me at the ICMI ACCE Conference & Expo in Seattle, Washington on Tuesday, May 8, Session 201 as I interview four generations of Starbucks call center representatives. You'll hear their expectations on coaching, management styles, likes and peeves. You'll take-away coaching techniques and language that will connect with each generation. Attendees will receive a complimentary laminated "Speak So They Will Listen" chart with tips on best communication practices and themes relative to the four generations to get your message heard the way you intend.